The Psychology of Evangelion — On Falling in Love with Existence

Introduction

With the recent release of Neon Genesis Evangelion on Netflix, as well as the anticipated conclusion of the Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy in 2020, it seems fitting to dive back into the franchise as a whole and explore what it may have to offer viewers. Despite belonging to a medium which has largely been overlooked or denigrated in the West, as far as anime is concerned, Neon Genesis Evangelion nonetheless contains a subtle yet substantial message about human psychological development, one as relevant now as when the series originally aired in 1995.

The Evangelion franchise is sizable, reaching not only anime and film, but manga, light novels, video games—all of various genres. For my purposes here, I will limit myself to the original anime of 26 episodes, as well as its sequel film, The End of Evangelion. Additionally, as may be appropriate, the reader should be aware that the following contains numerous spoilers for the aforementioned iterations of the series.

I first encountered Neon Genesis Evangelion as a child, borrowing burned DVDs of obscure anime from my older sister. To me as a kid, the series was entirely opaque; after having revisited the story for a few years, however, it has become meaningful to me. In a way, I see a great deal of myself in it. In this sense, I believe Evangelion fulfills one of the primary roles of good literature or myth: a narrative which serves to reveal to the listener, viewer, or reader something about themselves, to which they did not have access before.

In The Oprhean Passages, Walter Wangerin describes this phenomenon:

“In order to comprehend the experience one is living in, he must, by imagination and by intellect, be lifted out of it. He must be given to see it whole; but since he can never wholly gaze upon his own life while he lives it, he gazes upon the life that, in symbol, comprehends his own … [M]yth presents, myth is, such a symbol, shorn and unadorned, refined and true. And when one who gazes upon that myth suddenly, in dreadful recognition, cries out ‘There I am! That is me!’ then the marvelous translation has occurred: he is lifted out of himself to see himself wholly.”

-- Walter Wangerin, The Oprhean Passages (Zondervan, 1986), 14-15

With this in mind, one may ask what “marvelous translation” Evangelion wishes its viewer to experience. What does Hideaki Anno’s story have to tell us about ourselves?

Synopsis

Evangelion is a layered narrative in many respects, even turning its own viewers’ expectations back on the viewers themselves. Initially meeting those expectations before gradually peeling them away, by means of conspiracy and psychoanalysis, Evangelion breaks free of numerous tropes typical of its genre to convey a potentially unfamiliar message in familiar terms.

The series begins as a typical shōnen mecha anime:

Years after a devastating meteor strike in Antarctica on 13 September 2000—an event known to the surviving fraction of humanity as Second ImpactShinji Ikari is called upon by his father Gendo Ikari and a secret military organization called Nerv to pilot a giant robot, the Evangelion. Piloting Eva Unit 01, Shinji, along with his fellow pilots Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu, combat a race of giants called angels, creatures hell-bent upon the destruction of humanity. From their beachhead in Tokyo-3, Shinji, Rei, and Asuka are humanity’s last line of defense against extinction at the hands of an alien race.

While this narrative is mostly accurate (as it goes), it is in fact the propaganda given to the people by the United Nations, concealing a stranger story. While the majority of the world believes that Second Impact was the result of a meteorite touching down on the southern icecap, Nerv personnel with higher clearance—such as Shinji and his caretaker and commander, Misato Katsuragi—are given a more detailed story: rather than a meteor strike, Second Impact was in fact caused by an angel named Adam, a “giant of light” discovered under the ice of Antarctica, which inexplicably exploded after discovery. Beyond this, no one is certain as to why other angels have come to attack humanity 15 years later—no one with this level of clearance, at least.

As Shinji, Asuka, and Rei defeat one angel after the other, Misato digs further into the narrative Nerv has given her. With the help of an internal-affairs investigator and old college sweetheart, Ryoji Kaji, she gradually uncovers the true story known only to a few in Nerv—such as Misato’s college friend and Nerv’s chief scientist Ritsuko Akagi, her old professor Kozo Fuyutsuki, and another of her old classmates, Gendo Ikari, Nerv’s commanding officer and Shinji’s father. Through espionage, Misato learns that Nerv is overseen not only by the United Nations, but a clandestine organization known as Seele, composed in part of members of the UN itself. Seele appears to know more about the angels than they let on, and with Kaji’s help, Misato uncovers Nerv and Seele’s first major secret: buried deep beneath Nerv headquarters, in Terminal Dogma, is a massive humanoid of pallid, blubbery flesh, wearing a mask with seven eyes, pinned up by its palms to a great red cross over an orange sea—a being Nerv claims is Adam. Misato learns that when Adam was discovered in Antarctica—as part of an expedition led by her father, who died during Second Impact—it did not explode unexpectedly, but in response to the research expedition’s presence.

Further up the chain of command, limited to Fuyutsuki, Gendo, and Seele, is the truth. In the 1940s, discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls were texts detailing the existence of two beings, one of which was said to be hidden at the South Pole—Adam. These two giants, the texts said, were in fact the two agencies responsible for the creation of the world. Led in the background by Seele, the Katsuragi Expedition traveled to Antarctica to recover Adam, which they found buried in the ice, along with the Spear of Longinus, a massive red lance belonging to the giant. After a failed attempt to revive and harness Adam, the research team attempted to use the spear to kill the giant before they lost control of the situation—an attempt which ultimately resulted in the global devastation of Second Impact. In the aftermath of this cataclysm, Seele turned their attention to the second giant mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, called Lilith, buried deep beneath pre-Second Impact Hakone, Japan, later Tokyo-3. With Lilith secured, Seele organized a new research group—Gehirn—headed by Gendo, his wife Yui Ikari, and their colleague Naoko Akagi, mother of Ritsuko Akagi. Together their task was to create a weapon capable of defending humanity against the angels, should they ever return (presumably for Lilith). As a result, Gehirn carried out the Evangelion project, producing the three units subsequently employed by Nerv: the prototype Unit 00, piloted by Rei; the test-type Unit 01, piloted by Shinji; and the mass-production model Unit 02, piloted by Asuka. Gehirn is later renamed Nerv and placed in charge of guarding Lilith and maintaining the Eva program.

Thus, contrary to Kaji’s own impression, the angel buried beneath Nerv headquarters is not Adam, but Lilith, which remains a secret until the final angel, a boy named Kaworu Nagisa, attacks Nerv from within, at Seele’s behest. Descending to Terminal Dogma itself, Kaworu discovers that the giant on the cross is in fact Lilith, creator of humanity, not Adam, creator of angels (like Kaworu). After Shinji is forced to kill Kaworu, the last of the angels prophesied in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Seele and Nerv’s true plans are fully revealed—as well as their cross purposes. Using the remains of Adam and Lilith, and with direction from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Seele intends to trigger a Third Impact. However, rather than only destruction, as creators, Adam and Lilith could provide an opportunity for new creation. Opening the doors of Guf (a Kabbalistic concept, a cosmic chamber in which God keeps all souls, unborn and deceased), Adam and Lilith would break the world down to its most fundamental substance, returning the world of plurality and diversity to a homogeneous primordial sea.

True to traditional Eastern metaphysics, the universe of Evangelion is a holistic system. Typically, in Western thought, individual people, ourselves included, are described as neatly separable from the rest of the universe, like chess pieces on a board. In Eastern thought, however, people are inextricably linked to the rest of the universe, like a wave linked to the sea. In essence, if the universe in which the ensemble of Evangelion live is like a storm-tossed sea, the reunion of Adam and Lilith would mean the calming and flattening of those turbulent waters. Seele wishes to take control of this apocalypse, to orchestrate a rebirth of the world, redirecting evolution and human development in what they believe to be a more stable and fruitful direction—a plan they refer to as the Human Instrumentality Project. However, Gendo and Fuyutsuki, manipulating Seele and utilizing Nerv, have a plan of their own: the resurrection of Gendo’s deceased wife, Shinji’s mother, Yui Ikari.

As a researcher at Gehirn, Yui and Naoko developed a series of supercomputers called Magi, which utilize a direct copy of human brain activity in order to operate. The same system operates Nerv headquarters, as well as several other sites around the world: three supercomputers, named after the Three Wise Men of Christian tradition, distributed by an organic nervous system throughout the facility. A similar technology was used by Gendo, Yui, and Naoko to design the operating system of the Evangelion—and from this came the disaster which killed Yui Ikari. In attempting to image her brain as the operating system—or “soul,” one may say—of the Evangelion, Yui’s mind was separated from her body, and her body mostly destroyed. However, using a portion of Lilith’s body, Gendo created a clone of Yui’s body—Rei Ayanami—while her mind was preserved as the operating system of what would become Evangelion Unit 01, the unit eventually piloted by her son Shinji. Gendo, as Yui’s husband, and Fuyutsuki, as her mentor and friend, both plan shortly after Yui’s death to help Seele trigger Third Impact. However, instead of simply recreating the world into a supposed utopia, they plan to use the event to resurrect their mutual love.

After the death of Kaworu Nagisa, the final angel, Seele makes an aggressive move through the UN military to seize Nerv headquarters—a move Gendo, Fuyutsuki, and the rest of Nerv resist with equal violence. As UN forces flood Nerv headquarters, Gendo retires from the command center to find Rei. Taking her to Terminal Dogma, to the remainder of Lilith’s body, Gendo attempts to fuse the recovered remains of Adam with Rei’s body, partly Lilith herself, as per their plan. However, Rei rejects Gendo, instead fusing with the remnant of Adam and the remaining body of Lilith. Transforming into a giant, she ascends into the sky to meet Shinji, who is already in Evangelion Unit 01, forced into place by Nerv and Seele to begin his portion of the ritual initiating Third Impact. Embodying Lilith and Adam, a pale giant of herself, Rei rises to meet Shinji, who holds a portion of Adam in his Eva. The two fuse, and though Third Impact begins, Shinji ultimately rejects Instrumentality. Prematurely ending Third Impact altogether, he kills Rei/Lilith/Adam and leaves his Evangelion, ossified, in lunar orbit.

 

Characterization

The world of Evangelion is notoriously complex and difficult to follow, so one may be excused for not immediately grasping every detail, or the further meta-narrative pieced together from several portions of the franchise detailing from where Lilith and Adam originated and why they are on Earth. However, this cosmic, quasi-Lovecraftian story is in fact merely the background for the real substance of Evangelion: its three main characters, Shinji, Rei, and Asuka.

While Evangelion is built upon a rich mythos, its focus and fundamental purpose is to explore the three Eva pilots and their developing psyches. This is where Evangelion largely breaks from its contemporaries in the mecha anime genre: rather than a series only about warring agencies, human or alien, facilitated by giant robots, Evangelion focuses primarily on the psychological development of its three protagonists. In analyzing each of the three pilots, the viewer begins to discover the central message nested within Neon Genesis Evangelion, wrapped in its convolution and nurtured by its overall style.

In part, the overall theme of the series may be articulated by a quote often attributed to Sigmund Freud: "Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways."

Asuka Langley Soryu

Asuka begins life in Germany, the daughter of a Japanese woman (Kyoko Zeppelin Soryu) and an American man (Langley). A researcher in some way involved in the Evangelion project, Kyoko participates in a contact experiment for Evangelion Unit 02, similar to the experiment which ultimately cost Yui Ikari her life. Unlike Yui, however, Kyoko does not lose her life, but is rendered encephalopathic, neurologically injured to the point of total dissociation from reality. Unable to identify her own daughter, Kyoko instead cares for a doll she mistakes for Asuka, to her real daughter’s detriment.

As Asuka’s father has an affair with her mother’s doctor, Kyoko asks Asuka to join her in a suicide pact, to which the young girl agrees, wishing to regain some kind of acknowledgment from her mother. However, before the event, Asuka is selected to become an Evangelion pilot (presumably because her mother’s mind now resides in Unit 02, a critical factor in selecting pilots for an Eva unit). Believing this will win back her mother’s attention, Asuka races to tell Kyoko, only to find that not only has she already died by suicide, but that she has hanged the doll she identified as Asuka in place of her child. It’s in this moment that Asuka realizes her mother never recognized her after her accident. Left in an eventually broken home, raised by her father and his mistress, Asuka grows up with deep emotional trauma, which plays itself out during the series as grandiose narcissism and an unbridled sexual attraction to older men.

To understand Asuka, one may need to first understand the human psyche more generally. Though dated, Freud’s tripartite model of the psyche will suffice. In this schema, the human being, as an infant, begins as id, or a cluster of unconscious needs and impulses. However, as these needs and impulses are progressively frustrated, the id develops ego, a deliberate agent charged with mediating the id’s relations with its external world, ensuring the former has its needs met. In addition to this, the ego develops super-ego, social and cultural norms instilled in a child as they develop. While the id remains largely vague throughout life, the ego is a distinct set of adaptive mental and behavioral patterns, formulated in response to whatever environment in which a child may grow up. For instance, in Asuka’s case, having grown up fighting for her parents’ attention to no avail (whether in her mother’s psychosis or her father’s affair), Asuka develops coping strategies in order to ensure her basic human needs are nonetheless met in this environment: in this case, the natural need for connection, to be needed, or even wanted. Yet, after an ego sets its patterns, they are remarkably difficult to alter, becoming largely unconscious and automatic with age. In a manner of speaking, the child brings with them into adulthood the home environment in which they developed, remembered in the behavioral patterns of their ego. This is very much the case for Asuka.

Francine Shapiro, founder of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, describes the ways in which one’s past can unconsciously affect their present. In Getting Past Your Past, Shapiro describes the brain as an intricate web of memory networks, constantly drawing in new content from the experiences of one’s day-to-day life. The task of integrating new memories into a pre-existing network is called processing. Under normal circumstances, one may neatly process a memory, able to then recall that memory with minimal affective reaction or emotional upheaval. For instance, remembering what one had for breakfast this morning is not only easy but an entirely neutral memory. In the case of emotionally-charged memories, however, such as trauma (a broad term in this case), the memory is not so neatly networked in with other memories, remaining unprocessed. Metaphorically, if one’s memory network is like a bookshelf, each memory a book, then a traumatic or unprocessed memory is like a book with crumpled pages, shoved haphazardly into the wrong place on the shelf.

Suspended and unconnected with processed memories, traumatic memories are more readily recalled, bringing with them the raw affect of the original experience they represent. For instance, a person who had a negative experience with a dog may find that every time they encounter a dog thereafter, their heart pounds and their chest tightens in the same way they did during the initial negative experience, as if reliving that moment. This traumatic memory can cascade into one’s behavioral patterns, unconsciously affecting how one operates, even if one does not necessarily connect such effects with the traumatic memory at their root. EMDR therapy seeks to identify traumatic memories at the root of one’s neurotic behavioral patterns, and—through careful supervision and a neurologically-stimulating method unique to EMDR—help the patient to properly process the root memory: taking the book from its incorrect position, flattening out its pages, and placing it in the correct spot. The result is substantial: extending the previous example, while one may have been triggered into reliving their negative experience with a dog by merely encountering another dog, after processing the initial traumatic memory (such as through EMDR) the old memory is properly networked with other related memories, stripped of its affective immediacy. In short, it’s all the difference between reliving the experience and simply remembering you were once attacked by a dog.

This, Shapiro explains, is why therapies such as EMDR are so critical:

“Changing the memories that form the way we see ourselves also changes the way we view others. Therefore, our relationships, job performance, what we are willing to do or are able to resist, all move in a positive direction.”

—Shapiro, Getting Past Your Past, 24

Narrative therapy works in a similar way, helping patients to place traumatic memories into a broad, coherent narrative in which they can make greater sense of their experiences. Traumatic memories are thereby processed, transforming from emotionally corrosive to potentially useful memory.

One sees a similar transformation in Asuka in The End of Evangelion. Throughout the series, Asuka displays nothing but contempt for Rei (whom she refers to almost exclusively as “First Child,” a nomenclature used by Nerv and Seele to designate Eva pilots), while wavering in her reactions to Shinji. Though mostly remaining domineering, Asuka meanders between disgust, arousal, sadism, and rivalry in relation to Shinji. Though on the surface Asuka has stable relationships, deeper down she seems entirely devoid of healthy, fulfilling connection. She sees herself as a member of an absolute though constantly changing hierarchy, in competition with others. A success for another is a potential failure for her if she cannot replicate or exceed that success herself. These neurotic tendencies are rooted in the traumatic loss of her mother and her strained relationship with her father. However, this changes when she is forced into battle with unmanned mass-production Eva units during Seele’s siege of Nerv headquarters: at the edge of death, her psyche melds intimately with the operating system of her Eva, only to discover—her mother. Re-experiencing her mother—not the damaged woman returned to her after an accident with Nerv, but the genuine mother she had longed for all these years—Asuka’s memories are rearranged into a new narrative. Having no real context for what happened to her mother in the first place, Asuka realizes that Kyoko never deliberately abandoned her; even more, despite Kyoko’s suicide, her mother had always been with her, ever since Asuka’s first experiences with Unit 02. The mother Asuka’s ego has been constantly trying to reach for years was always with her, watching over her, protecting her, cheering her forward—from inside the Evangelion.

This realization re-contextualizes for Asuka if not all her traumatic memories, at the very least most of them, changing her disposition entirely. No longer overcome with near-suicidal despair over her seeming failures or paralyzed by an absence of self-confidence, Asuka gracefully disposes of the unmanned Eva units. Though the UN-owned Eva units revive and overcome Asuka, this moment is an undeniable change in her psyche.

Rei Ayanami

As the preserved body of Yui Ikari and a portion of Lilith, Rei is in essence a clone. However, rather than a mirror copy of Yui, Rei first appears after Yui’s death as a little girl rather than a grown woman. Still with Gehirn, Gendo brings Rei with him to work, describing her as the daughter of a close friend, with whose he has been charged. Unconvinced, Naoko Akagi attempts to look into Rei’s past, only to find that her records have been “deleted” or otherwise classified. When Rei tells Naoko that Gendo, with whom she has been having an affair, thinks of her only as a useless “old hag,” Naoko snaps and in a flight of rage strangles the young Rei to death. Overcome with shock and guilt over what she has done, Naoko commits suicide by jumping from the balcony from which she was working and where she killed the child Rei. Being a clone, Rei is again reborn. The Rei the viewer first encounters in the series is in fact Rei II.

A clone with seemingly no unique inner life of her own, Rei is something of an echo of her immediate surroundings. Her living space, a Spartan and dour apartment in the projects, is arranged almost entirely like the hospital in which she was first produced—whether out of an unconscious pattern born of a forgotten memory or an inability to innovate on her surroundings, one cannot say. Though possessing ostensibly no real connections, Rei shares a close relationship with Gendo, who treats her much like a daughter, showing her the affection and care that he has for years denied his son Shinji. When a test of Unit 00, the prototype Eva assigned to Rei, goes terribly wrong, Rei’s cockpit is ejected and falls a great distance to the ground. Gendo, panicked for her safety, rushes onto the scene and opens the cockpit’s superheated container with his bare hands, rescuing her. In the process, his glasses fall into a pool of boiling LCL, melting the frames and cracking the lenses. Rei keeps these glasses, taking great care of them—one of her few possessions.

Were one to describe Rei in a single term, it may be passive. Not actively resisting her circumstances (like Asuka), or actively seeking to conform (like Shinji), Rei remains seemingly unaffected by her life, following orders without protest or error. Possessing no identifiable emotion, Rei aids Gendo in his and Fuyutsuki’s plans to resurrect Yui. Asuka on occasion accuses Rei of being a “doll” (a terribly meaningful term for Asuka), which Rei denies, though she has doubts herself.

Though Rei possesses no Pollyannaish illusions about her life, her passivity may be considered a kind of surrender to the savagery of her own existence, and existence in general. In the closing chapter of The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker describes this existential savagery:

“What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types—biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killerbees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out—not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in “natural” accidents of all types: an earthquake buries alive 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the U.S. alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organism’s comfort and expansiveness.”

Becker’s main thesis is that the common human reaction to this “nightmare spectacular,” resulting in the annihilation of death, is to formulate various “heroisms,” varying across cultures. Each culture or civilization collectively imagines an ideal person, a “hero” they can strive to emulate, in a presumptuous attempt at overcoming the annihilation of death—of achieving immortality. Though not inherently unhealthy, Becker points out that these heroisms can become tantamount to fruitless wars with reality itself—comparable to Asuka’s ware with her own hierarchical, meritocratic reality. However, rather than going to war with this “nightmare spectacular” as Asuka does, or seeking to get away from it as Shinji tries to do, Rei seems to “go limp” and allow the current to carry her out to sea, so to speak.

That said, Rei begins to change when she meets Shinji and Asuka. When Shinji insists that he has no trust in his father, asking who could trust such a man at all, Rei suddenly slaps him; and yet she also seems torn between what may be echoed memories of affection for both Gendo and Shinji, being a copy of their wife and mother, respectively. Moreover, when Rei must work closely with Asuka and Shinji to re-enter Nerv during a lockdown, as an angel attacks, she responds to Asuka’s constant accusations of privilege by saying that she is treated no better than they are—revealing a hint of bitterness. Though it is difficult to pinpoint a moment when Rei truly changes from passive to active, one may say it is when she is killed in another angel attack, sacrificing herself to save Shinji by self-destructing her own Evangelion. Though Rei II dies in the explosion, a new copy of her is discovered in the hospital thereafter, everyone else believing she was merely injured in the detonation. To this all Rei can say is that she thinks she’s “the third one.”

In The End of Evangelion, preparing to return to Nerv, the viewer finds Rei in her apartment, holding Gendo’s melted glasses—only to snap them. Though her feelings are unclear, something in Rei’s encounter with Asuka and especially Shinji has changed her from a passive servant of her circumstances to an active rebel. This is the prelude to her rejection of Gendo, when he attempts to initiate Third Impact with her, instead going to Shinji, hearing him crying out for help, initiating Third Impact with him instead—and ultimately dying when, after conversing with Shinji about his own psychic turmoil, he halts Third Impact altogether.

Shinji Ikari

Shinji Ikari may be most easily described by a metaphor employed by Ritsuko Akagi in conversation with Misato Katsuragi: the hedgehog’s dilemma. An analogy used by both Freud and Arthur Schopenhauer, the hedgehog’s dilemma describes both the necessity and cost of human intimacy. Hedgehogs, in order to survive the winter, Dr. Akagi says, will nestle close to each other for warmth; however, because of their proximity, they must be careful not to stick one another with their spines. For Shinji, she says, social interaction is much too painful, people being far too unpredictable and Shinji being haunted by deep-seated feelings of self-hatred and insufficiency from early childhood. Like Asuka, he is haunted by early childhood trauma, expressed as neurosis in his present.

Though largely unaware of the circumstances of his mother’s death (some even go so far as to accuse Gendo of having murdered his wife), Shinji was in fact present for the contact experiment that killed Yui. Too young at the time to remember any detail, Shinji seems to nonetheless carry the trauma of witnessing his mother’s demise in his unconscious. In addition, after this accident, Gendo sends Shinji away to live with one of his school teachers—entirely absent from his son’s life until, in 2015 and the start of the series, Gendo contacts Shinji, telling him to come to Tokyo-3. Shinji mostly resents his father, seeing him as simply cold and unfeeling. Yet during Third Impact, Gendo shares an exchange with Yui, confessing that the reason he pushed his son away was because of his own self-hatred, believing he would only hurt Shinji if he remained in his life. It’s this authentic affection for his son that resurfaces when, after dispatching an angel intent on falling on Tokyo-3 from orbit, Gendo compliments Shinji on a job well done—praise Shinji clings to.

However, throughout the series, while Shinji’s own social anxiety and depression are constantly challenged, whether by people or necessity, he does experience internal changes of his own. These changes are mostly facilitated by the emergence of new relationships in his life: Misato Katsuragi, when she has him move in with her after learning he would be living alone at Nerv; his classmates Toji Suzuhara and Kensuke Aida; his co-pilots, Rei and Asuka; the staff of Nerv, headed by Ritsuko; and his father, Gendo. Shinji’s earliest memories are suffused with a sense of catastrophic rejection; like Lucifer cast down from heaven for his own failures, his memories are of a mother who could not protect him and a father who did not want him, leading to a lifetime of people-pleasing social anxiety and depression. Shinji’s ego patterns itself on a presumed, a priori sense of rejection and separation; though consciously he may wish for connection, Shinji’s ego knows only how to play out his early childhood abandonment. This is similar to a model in modern attachment theory, wherein one’s present adult relationships are considered a causal result of the relationships one experienced in early childhood, especially with one’s parents. However, despite his pathological childhood, Shinji’s ego functions much like the average ego would. Freud explains this phenomena in the opening chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents, as well as its remedy:

“[T]he ego seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation. There is only one state … in which it does not do this. At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact.”

— Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (Wilder Publications, 2011)

Though in some cases romantic love, it is love in general, among friends and family, that melt away the walls Shinji’s early childhood has caused him to put up. As evidenced by Shinji’s development, the ego remains malleable, and while part of Shinji fights to maintain his separation from a painful world, his new and deepening relationships leave him indelibly changed. Throughout the series, Shinji grows from a distant and selfish child to a more deliberate, considerate, self-driven young man. And though his initiation of Third Impact, in the end, is in the midst of tremendous emotional trauma, he ultimately rejects the temptation of Instrumentality—the ability to reshape the world into what he wishes it to be—and returns to the world from which he has so long attempted to flee.

 

Vulnerability, Social and Existential

According to Søren Kierkegaard, life is the sickness unto death, so saturated in existential angst (German, “dread”) that one wonders quite readily if life may even be worth living. More pointedly, Albert Camus states in The Myth of Sisyphus that the fundamental question philosophy has to answer is whether to commit suicide. From the privileged to the destitute, even in a myriad of varying circumstances, this palpable angst is not a deviation from a normal life but the norm itself. The difference between human beings is not whether they experience this negative affect of feeling thrown (to use Martin Heidegger’s term) unwillingly and unwittingly into life, but in how they respond to that sensation. In Evangelion, the fundamental root of each character’s suffering—and, by extension, that of humans in general—is not their vulnerability, but their refusal to accept their vulnerability.

While unexpressed and even repressed emotions constitute half of Evangelion’s overall message, another half here begins to emerge. This remainder may be expressed by Haruki Murakami in his 1Q84: “We cannot simply sit and stare at our wounds forever. We must stand up and move on to the next action.” What, then, is the “next action” the characters of Evangelion—and the viewers, by extension—must take in order to “move on”?

Connection seems to be the common thread running through Evangelion as a whole. For instance, as is now evident, socialization is a critical motif in the series. Whether neurotic or healthy, distant or co-dependent, fulfilling or deadening, relationships are unavoidable. A common trope in many shōnen anime and manga, each character has something to do with all the others; in the case of Evangelion, however, these connections are rich and varied, from professional to personal. Rather than the mere contrivance of a plot demanding to move forward, the ensemble are entangled due to the organic happenstance of life, much like the viewer is in their own relationships. It’s an inter-disciplinary truism that human beings are inherently social animals; regardless of how one socializes, one is always in some way socializing. The concept of the “self-sufficient” person, hermetically sealed off from the rest of their world, is a myth; possessing no wholly distinct essence, we are in fact bundles of context and relations.

In Evangelion, the singular force that seems to swing neurosis into recovery, toxicity into fulfillment, in the characters’ relationships is love. Asuka is fundamentally changed by realizing her own mother’s constantly present love, in the form of her synchronization with Eva Unit 02’s operating system, her mother’s imaged mind; Shinji is gradually lifted out of his own abyss by the growing number of authentic friendships he gains upon moving to Tokyo-3; and Rei herself is changed by the distant echoes of Yui Ikari’s love for both her husband and her son, lighting a fire in her otherwise hollow self.

We may define love through Brené Brown, based upon years of data gathered from thousands of participants in a survey exploring their experiences with shame and social connection:

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.

“Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

“Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Hazelden Publishing, 2010)

This definition seems intuitive, yet it also deviates from a more common definition of love as a kind of preferential treatment or consideration. By this latter definition, love is the response we give when our preferences are met. Yet this is not loving someone, but liking someone. For instance, in Evangelion, Asuka experiences sexual attraction to older men (born from her relationship with her father), which she attempts to play out with Ryoji Kaji; however, Kaji tries to show Asuka that this is not love, but merely need—Asuka needs Kaji to fill a hole, unable to be alone or to go without praise. By pursuing this compulsion, Asuka in fact denies her own vulnerability, the vulnerability which is critical to genuine love. Additionally, one may consider Shinji, who is occasionally unafraid to throw accusations against his father or friends, claiming he is the way he is because they have abandoned them; in this, he refuses his own vulnerability by positioning the locus of control from himself to others, in order to justify his unwillingness to open up to others.

Love, to paraphrase Paul Tillich, is not “because of” anything, but “despite” everything; rather than an aura in which we at last feel we will never be judged again, love is a willingness to open oneself to others, despite the possibility of harsh judgments such as shame or rejection. Elsewhere, Brown expands on her definition of love through vulnerability:

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

—Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, 6

We may broaden this definition further, in fact, for as people are always in one way or another in relation to others, they are also always already in relation to the Other as such—namely, to reality as a whole. Utilizing Brown’s own definition of love through vulnerability, with added insights on gratitude despite one’s circumstances, one may come to what may be called existential love. A love by way of vulnerability, this existential love would entail a willingness to be as one is, not only around other people, but in private—to accept oneself. Additionally, as one may accept others as they are, one may also learn to accept life as it is.

Friedrich Nietzsche describes something akin to this existential love in The Gay Science:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, and in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” he asks. Yet hope remains, as he asks further if the reader has not “once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine!’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

— Friedrich NietzscheThe Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (Random House, 1974), 273-274

This concept seems to appear in The End of Evangelion and its companion piece, the final two episodes of the series, being the same story told in two different ways. If the film explores how the world comes to Third Impact, the final two episodes of the anime focus primarily on what happens to the world in Third Impact. In both the movie and the series finale, as the gates of Guf open and the world begins to lose all distinction, melting down to its fundamental substance, the viewer listens in on what may be called mental crosstalk—each character, having lost the natural boundary separating their inner world from the outer world, now experiences the thoughts and feelings of every other person in vivid detail. Shinji, Asuka, Rei, Misato, Gendo, Ristuko, Kaji—all their memories, thoughts, and feelings, rather than disappearing, are instead pooled together, along with those of every other human being. Third Impact is thus not extinction, but fusion, intensifying connection with others by removing all boundaries, natural or imposed. It’s in this crosstalk, and in his conversations with Rei and his mother Yui, that Shinji realizes that what he wants to achieve in Third Impact will never happen: no matter what he does, he can never escape reality, including people. Rather than despair at this revelation, however, he accepts it, perhaps even embraces it, opening up in the kind of vulnerability requisite of love for self and other. In short, Shinji chooses to return from the fantasy of Third Impact to the suffering of reality.

 

“Anywhere Can Be Paradise”

Consider this thought experiment: close your eyes and imagine the world you wish to live in. Imagine the family and friends you wish you had, the career you wish you were fulfilling, the life you wish you were living. Really indulge in the idea; think it through to every last detail. Then open your eyes—and realize you’re still in this world, the only world you have.

One can do this with anything in life, really. This exercise may demonstrate how remarkably common daydreaming really is, and how it can in rare cases lead to a type of maladaptive daydreaming—a refusal to acknowledge the life one is living in favor of an escapist fantasy. This is not to say that life cannot be changed, that we are powerless in the face of our circumstances or the people we encounter. Rather, it is to say that the common maladaptive daydreaming each of us indulges in is not us planning for a better world, but our fruitless attempts to escape the only world by which anything better will come. Whatever the future may hold, it will come by way of the present: the difference between a goal and a fantasy is how readily one accepts their present situation.

In this sense, Third Impact and Instrumentality are the ultimate maladaptive daydream. In the closing episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, at the height of Third Impact, Shinji is shown an alternate world he may prefer to live in: in this world, characteristic of a slice-of-life anime, he is a regular student, both his mother and father are still alive, Asuka is an old childhood friend, Misato is their homeroom teacher, and Rei is a new transfer student to their class—everything is not only normal, but radiant. And yet it’s a lie, in a way. To flee to that world would be to abandon the one in which, as a part of which Shinji exists. To flee from the world he lives in will not save him. A change of venue will not redeem Shinji because the epicenter of his suffering is not circumstance, no matter how undesirable, but his own soul, the field of consciousness in which those circumstances are anticipated, experienced, analyzed, remembered. And no external change can save Shinji from himself. This is the revelation at which Shinji arrives at the end of his indulgence in Third Impact; at the height of his neurotic fantasy, he comes back to himself.

Jim Morrison articulates this revelation in an interview from 1981:

“People are afraid of themselves, of their own reality; their feelings most of all. People talk about how great love is, but that’s bullshit. Love hurts. Feelings are disturbing. People are taught that pain is evil and dangerous. How can they deal with love if they’re afraid to feel? Pain is meant to wake us up. People try to hide their pain. But they’re wrong. Pain is something to carry, like a radio. You feel your strength in the experience of pain. It’s all in how you carry it. That’s what matters. Pain is a feeling. Your feelings are a part of you. Your own reality. If you feel ashamed of them, and hide them, you’re letting society destroy your reality. You should stand up for your right to feel your pain.”

In the series’ last moments, still in the throes of Third Impact, Shinji is taken through the logic of this realization. In the voices of several characters, several minds meshed together at the cusp of Instrumentality, they explain:

“There are as many truths as there are people. … But there's only one truth that you have, which is formed from your narrow view of the world. It is revised information to protect yourself, the twisted truth. … Oh, yes, the view of the world that one can have is quite small. … Yes, you measure things only by your own small measure. … One sees things with the truth given by others. … Happy on a sunny day. … Gloomy on a rainy day. … If you're taught that, you always think so. … But, you can enjoy rainy days. … Through different ways of conceiving, the truth will change into very different things; it's a weak thing.”

In this way, life is like a Rorschach inkblot. If a therapist ever utilizes such a tool with a client, they ask what the client sees in the inkblot, but never responds with whether what the client sees is “correct.” The point is not that the inkblot has meaning; it is, rather deliberately, meaningless. The question is what the client sees in the inkblot because we do not see things as they are, but as we are. In that subjective vision, one may experience a message directly related to their own personal development; as Shinji’s lesson comes from a conglomeration of his family, friends, and acquaintances, our own realizations may come by way of the collective and individual messages contained in our own lives and experiences.

Shinji’s realization is that his suffering stems from his refusal to love himself—“Those who hate themselves cannot love or trust others.” And like the love through vulnerability outlined by Brown, this self-love is no mere sentimentalism, but requires Shinji to embrace even his negative emotions, whatever he is given in life.

In his theory of the Oedipus complex, Freud insists that one fetishizes the idea of the mother to the point of sexualization. In more modern terms, the mother figure symbolizes the wholeness and safety of the womb, the nursery, the mother’s arms—protection from the unpredictable and uncaring world beyond. This is the defining characteristic of Shinji Ikari, who, haunted by the loss of his mother Yui and captivated by her echo Rei, finds himself enamored with safety and protection from life. Evangelion is suffused with maternal imagery: the cockpit of the Eva units is similar to a womb, filled with a kind of amniotic fluid (LCL); Shinji and Asuka’s respective mothers are each embodied in Unit 01 and Unit 02. Yet, in this Oedipal model, every good mother of necessity must “fail,” gradually introducing her child to the wider world beyond comfort and protection. In The End of Evangelion, Yui plays a critical role in Shinji’s decision to reject Instrumentality. As Shinji puts a stop to Third Impact, Yui softly reassures her son before returning him to his motherless world:

“Anywhere can be paradise as long as you have the will to live. After all, you are alive, so you will always have the chance to be happy. As long as the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth exist, everything will be all right.”

Conclusion

By way of summary, we may borrow from Nietzsche one more time, namely section 1032 of The Will to Power:

”The first question is by no means whether we are content with ourselves, but whether we are content with anything at all. If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.”

— Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann, R. J. Holdingdale (Vintage Books, 1968)

Put another way, suffering is not an aberration of life, but its consequence. The price for all this variety and creation is friction and collision. Yet that suffering does not stem from life itself, but in our insistence that life be something other than what it is; from constantly telling ourselves and others that happiness means having all our fleeting, subjective preferences met. Yet the truth still dawns on us time and again: we will never be entirely what we insist we are supposed to be, people will never be wholly what we say they should be, our circumstances will never fully be what we wish them to be. Evangelion’s wager is not that this realization spells misery, as that would imply that our suffering is centered in external circumstances, not ourselves. The message of Neon Genesis Evangelion is that true peace and happiness do not come when all our preferences are finally met, but when we at last set them aside; when we cease judging the value of life on what is given, and instead embrace the givenness of life.

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Recommended Reading

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Image: Depiction of main characters from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion; Back row, left to right (adults): Ritsuko AkagiGendo IkariYui IkariKōzō FuyutsukiShigeru AobaMaya IbukiMakoto HyugaRyoji KajiMisato Katsuragi Front row, left to right (children and penguin): Kaworu Nagisa (Tabris)Pen-PenHikari HorakiKensuke AidaToji SuzuharaAsuka Langley SoryuShinji IkariRei Ayanami. Borrowed from Wikipedia.